by Dan Eden

I vividly recall that day in a bookstore. It was in 1981-- a couple of years after the unmanned spacecraft, Voyager, had taken pictures of the mysterious "Red Planet" during its sojourn through our Solar System. A book cover showed a fuzzy image of something that looked like a face staring back at the scanning camera from the surface of Mars. NASA scientists, when they were filing the images of Voyager, had apparently recognized this feature and had nicknamed the frame "the face." For years they would regret this nickname.

Soon, the same bookstore had numerous books with this "face" in them, claiming that it proved our sister planet was once inhabited. Many drew similarities to the image and the "face" of the Sphinx in Egypt. Lavish theories were invented. Humans were enslaved on Mars, aliens were responsible for both the Mars face and the Sphinx, and there was talk of a NASA cover-up of alien life. Enlargements of the entire mosaic of photos taken by the Voyager spacecraft showed other anomalies as well. Just like in Cairo, there were shapes that appeared to be huge pyramids, and circles that reminded some people of Stonehenge.

When the Hubble Telescope was first launched, speculation was high that this powerful imaging system would be turned towards the red planet to get a more detailed picture of the area-- now called Cydonia. When the telescope's optics were found to be "fuzzy" (an error in the manufacturing of its mirror) skeptics insisted that this was an intentional conspiracy to hide the truth about Mars, aliens and Cydonia.

In the mid-1990's, another unmanned satellite was sent to Mars with capabilities to photograph Cydonia and other areas in great detail. As anticipation mounted, the long journey ended when a rocket misfired on the satellite's entry into the Martian atmosphere, causing it to spin out of control. NASA declared the spacecraft lost, but rumors persisted for years that amateur radio buffs were detecting telemetry from the spacecraft. Once again the theories of a government cover-up were rampant.

Even today, numerous videos and books speak of the face on Mars as factual. But now there is a definitive answer to this puzzle. The Mars Orbitor Mission's latest satellite, the Mars Global Surveyor, entered the Martian atmosphere and on April 5th, 1998-- almost a decade after the first fuzzy images of Cydonia were relayed to Earth from Voyager. New images were downloaded. The technology and resolution of more modern cameras were programmed to focus on the mysterious face and pyramid, as well as other areas that Martian conspiracy fans had started calling "the town square," and other names designed to link the fuzzy pictures to some long lost civilization.

The new cameras were able to take extremely high resolution pictures of the surface, sending back clear visions of the face at various angles of lighting and shadow. The structure that had once been dubbed "a sibling to Egypt's great Sphinx" was now obviously nothing more than a huge pile of sand and rock. The pyramidal shapes, likewise, were shown as ordinary surface features. So much for Cydonia.

On the left you will see the best image from the Voyager mission, showing the famous "face" of Mars. On the right are two of the best images taken this year by the Mars Global Surveyor of the same area.

NASA officials have always believed that these features were the result of poor optics and odd shadows. They were not disappointed by the new images. On the contrary, the detailed images of other surface features show exciting proof that the desert planet was once covered with oceans and rivers. There are even polar caps with kilometers of packed ice at the poles. Although Cydonia may not have been the great plaza of some distant civilization, the evidence of water on the planet holds out the greatest hope for evidence of life and makes the planet the main focus of interplanetary exploration in the coming millennium.


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